A friend of the writer Kim Stolz once jumped onto subway tracks to retrieve a dropped iPhone. Telling the story in Unfriending My Ex And Other Things I’ll Never Do, Stolz reports being horrified by the risk—yet adds, “[I]f this same friend dropped her iPhone onto the subway tracks tomorrow, she wouldn’t hesitate to attempt this feat again. And neither would I.”
Welcome to the Digital Age, when a phone is worth a leap onto the tracks, and people are reluctant to put down their devices even while driving. Our words, photos, money, and medical records live online. People walk with heads bowed, eyes riveted to the gadgets cradled in their hands.
But we’re only beginning to grapple with the changes that digital technology brings. Beneath its lure, I sense unease. And why shouldn’t we be nervous—especially those of us in Generation X, the last generation that grew up without the internet, raised on the dystopian visions of 1984’s surveillance network and 2001: A Space Odyssey’s rebellious computer?
Several recent books explore this unease, questioning what our devices and networks might be doing to us. In Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, Adam Alter examines our compulsive relationship with technology, especially with games and apps. He discusses research on factors such as the roles of dopamine and social environment in addiction, and shows how elements of game design—such as irregular feedback, cliffhangers, and losses disguised as wins—feed into addictive behavior.
The addictive nature of technology—“I haven’t seen someone get out of bed without first checking their smartphone in at least seven years”—is also a central point in Unfriending My Ex. Stolz serves up anecdotes about rash, impulsive behavior and relationship damage enabled by social media, supporting these tales with abundant references to suggest they are not necessarily isolated incidents.
At one point, Stolz undertakes a technology fast: one week without her smartphone, the internet, social media, email, or DVR. Within days, she finds herself more present in social situations and conversations, more able to focus.
Apparently it’s not the content, but the very act of receiving a message—any message—that hooks us.
Yet, at the end of the experiment, she dives back into the sea of constant information and connection, even though it turns out she hasn’t missed much. Stolz admits, “[W]hen I gave in to the itch [to check messages] I found junk emails: Wasabi Lobby’s sushi specials, Pottery Barn’s seasonal sale, a pop-up notification about the score of a sporting event that I didn’t even know was happening. …” Apparently it’s not the content, but the very act of receiving a message—any message—that hooks us.
Nicholas G. Carr documents his concerns in Utopia Is Creepy: And Other Provocations, a collection of short pieces—most of them, ironically, originally posted online—with a few longer essays and book excerpts. Among Carr’s issues are how the internet enables “harvesting the economic value of the free labor provided by the very many and concentrating it into the hands of the very few”; the ubiquity of surveillance; the erosion of attention and deep thinking; loss of patience (“[I]t takes a delay of just 250 milliseconds in page loading for people to start abandoning a site”); and impacts on political and civic life.
Carr recounts a story from Retromania by Simon Reynolds, about how the iPod shuffle feature encourages Reynolds to keep skipping to the next song. As he skips, he listens less and less to the actual music, and concludes, “[T]he logical culmination would have been for me to remove the headphones and just look at the track display.” Here, too, it seems the content of a message matters less than the act of receiving it.
Carr also addresses transhumanism—that is, “radical human enhancement” through biotechnology. He reports that neuroengineering projects in the works include brain implants, neural interfaces, brain chips, and retinal implants. Cochlear implants are already in use. Excitement over these innovations walks hand in hand with trepidation because we are accelerating “the time scale of physiological adaptation” without knowing the consequences.
If we do become less focused, more compulsive, more reliant on a common network, less likely to interact in person—so what? Is that truly a change for the worse?
In the thoughtful Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, Sven Birkerts echoes the concerns of Carr, Alter, and Stolz, but he also probes more deeply: if we do become less focused, more compulsive, more reliant on a common network, less likely to interact in person—so what? Is that truly a change for the worse?
Birkerts names the problems, finding plenty to worry about: that our centralization of knowledge may lead to groupthink; that information collected on the internet is stripped of its original context; that institutions lose accountability by shunting us into a tangle of links and extensions, forcing us to interact only with screens and robotic voices; that our breathless, crowded, ever-upgrading environment places us in an unwinnable race; that data collection, targeted advertising, and GPS all encourage a mode of obedience, of following directions.
Most of all, Birkerts worries that loss of focus and attention means loss of imagination, creativity, and engagement with the questions that make life worth living. “Contemplation directs itself at the existential, which is to say, at that which pertains to the possible why of our being,” he asserts. Imagination is “the one feature that connects us with the deeper sources and possibilities of being.”
Of course, technology has an even darker side, facilitating new crimes and intrusions and security threats. Kevin Mitnick plumbs these depths in Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures As the World’s Most Wanted Hacker (with William L. Simon).
Mitnick got his start with ham radio and then became interested in the phone system. But computers opened up the biggest frontier of all: “I felt like an explorer, traveling cyberspace without limitations, sneaking into systems for the pure thrill and satisfaction, outsmarting engineers with years of experience, figuring out how to bypass security obstacles, learning how things worked.” Mitnick often treated hacking as an end in itself, pursuing that “pure thrill,” hoarding information he never used. On stealing some source code, for example, he felt “triumphant” but added, “[H]ere’s the odd part: when I got the tape, I didn’t even spend much time looking at the code. I had succeeded in my challenge, but the code itself was of less interest to me than the achievement.”
Mitnick’s obsession eventually landed him in prison, after which he became a security consultant. But other hackers are still out there, traveling the back alleys and underground tunnels of our networks.
There are reasons we cling to our gadgets; the digital era brings joy and wonder as well as loss and dread. Virginia Heffernan explores both sides in the aptly titled Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art—although she tilts toward the magic, describing the internet as “the great masterpiece of human civilization” and “a grand emotional, sensory, and intellectual adventure.” Watching instructional videos, playing games with people in other countries, tweeting messages to a renowned scientist—these are but a few of the miracles that the internet has made commonplace. We now routinely interact with one another in ways that were impossible for most of human history.
The digital era brings joy and wonder as well as loss and dread.
Kenneth Goldsmith goes even further than Heffernan in celebrating cyberspace, finding the handwringing of naysayers to be overwrought. In Wasting Time on the Internet, Goldsmith contends that the web is social, not antisocial; after all, we communicate through it. As for fears of shrinking attention spans, he argues, “[W]hen I look around me and see people riveted to their devices, I’ve never seen such a great wealth of concentration, focus, and engagement.”
What about depth of attention, though—our transition from deep reading to skimming? We do both, Goldmith says; “[W]e skim and browse certain types of content, and read others carefully.” As for distraction, he argues, “True, distraction might mean missing the main event. But what if nobody knows anymore what or where the main event is?” In other words, how do we know that the first thing that grabs our attention is inherently more worthy than the second thing, the alleged distraction?
Marveling as Heffernan does at the wonder of the internet, Goldsmith sees Facebook as “the greatest collective autobiography that a culture has ever produced, a boon to future sociologists, historians, and artists.” The internet does not oppress creativity, but is a playground for it. Twitter is an example of how the web has not ruined writing after all: “The constraint alone brings craft to the fore: how can I say something with such limited real estate?”
Then there are the societal benefits. If governments and advertisers can use technology to keep tabs on us, we can also use it to keep tabs on authority: “The ubiquity of smartphones and dashboard and body cams, combined with the ability to distribute these images virally, have shed light on injustices that previously went unnoticed.”
Part of Goldsmith’s enthusiasm for the new world may stem from his own temperament. When using voice recognition technology to dictate, Goldsmith reports, “I happily adjust my speech to the constraints of the machine.” Dictating while jogging, Goldsmith describes himself as “in a very positive way, highly distracted.” Why “happily”? Why “very positive”? Is it just a matter of attitude?
Nicholas Carr suggests an answer: “Progress may, for a time, intersect with one’s own personal beliefs, and during that period, one will become a gung-ho technological progressive. But that’s just coincidence. In the end, progress is oblivious to anyone’s beliefs or yearnings. Those who think of themselves as great fans of progress, of technology’s inexorable march forward, will change their tune as soon as progress destroys something they care deeply about.” The varying degrees of enthusiasm or horror these authors—or, indeed, the rest of us—feel may depend partly on whether their beliefs are reflected in technology, and whether they are losing things they value. Millions of us are benefiting and losing at the same time, making our personal calculations of gains and losses.
Our fascination with the digital may be, in part, a love of shiny newness, of edges and frontiers, of seeing what is next. When Mitnick steals code that he barely glances at, when Stolz obsessively checks messages that she knows are probably spam, when Goldsmith downloads files that he never opens, when Carr shows Reynolds clicking through a playlist solely to see what song will come up next, without listening to the music—is this all just a quest for novelty? Will all forms of technology eventually follow the arc Nora Ephron charted in her essay, “The Six Stages of E-Mail,” about the progression from novelty to nuisance? Those of a certain age have already traveled that arc with telephones, as first answering machines and then texting relieved us of the burden of calls—a burden that, just a few decades earlier, had been a miracle.
If our marvels do become burdens, if we do become jaded, it might not matter, because new miracles keep appearing. Now VR—virtual reality—looms on the horizon. Like all other advances before it, it has downsides. Alter worries that VR might be compelling and dangerously addictive, and even Heffernan acknowledges VR’s drawbacks: “Sometimes when I listened to developers talk about their eagerness to ‘immerse’ audiences in multisensory experiences, I thought I detected a less savory desire to imprison them in programming, to leave them with no sensory exit.” We don’t know how human beings will handle a deeply immersive alternate reality. The potential for manipulation of minds seems obvious. But how to measure that risk against the potential reward? Enchanted by her own experience, Heffernan lauds the “joyful and sustaining” quality of “presence” in VR, which is “to be suffused with the conviction—a cellular conviction, both unimpeachable and too deep for words—that you are in another world.”
Our world is already saturated with technology; there is plenty for technophobes and technophiles alike to consider. As Heffernan observes,
The Internet suggests immortality—comes just shy of promising it—with its magic. … And then, just as suddenly, it stirs grief: the deep feeling that digitization has cost us something very profound. That connectedness is illusory; that we’re all more alone than ever.
We struggle to absorb these gains and losses. Computers and the internet are our own creations, and yet they seem to have a life independent of ours, a momentum that no single person can control. We navigate these rapids, paddling fiercely to stay afloat or surrendering to the thrill of the ride. The force of the current is exhilarating, and terrifying.